Say Yes to Ferne Clyffe State Park
Ferne Clyffe State Park will always have a warm place in my heart. Located in Southern Illinois, it's a land of hiking, camping, waterfalls, orange shirts, and one very special question.
If you read that and thought "one of these things is not like the other," you'd be right.
It was mid-April, 2014, and my boyfriend, Jim, and I were on our first camping trip of the year. The nighttime temps were still below freezing in the Chicago area, but we had just found our shared love of the outdoors the previous September and were anxious to get back out there. I searched for campgrounds with showers that opened before May 1; we may have been new to camping, but we knew that functional plumbing meant it should be warm enough to sleep in a tent. My search took me further and further south until I came upon a swath of potential state parks: Giant City, Cave-in-Rock, Trail of Tears, Dixon Springs, Lake Murphrysboro, and Ferne Clyffe.
We picked Ferne Clyffe State Park, west of Shawnee National Forest, because it had hiking, electric hookups, and waterfalls. (I have a thing for waterfalls.)
Our camp setup was as easy as it had been the first two times we'd tried it the previous fall, reinforcing our belief that we were good together. If you've ever tried to set up a tent with another human being, you know it's an excellent test of your communication skills and capacity for patience with each other. Tent stakes may be flimsy, but they could certainly do some damage if the tent construction goes sideways.
The next morning we ate our double-yolked eggs, a phenomenon mom always told me was a sign of good luck (the double-yolks, not the eating), before heading out to do some hiking. We picked two easy paths with trailheads that shared the same parking lot. We didn't know it at the time, but the two areas we would see were how the park got its name. In 1899, two brothers from Cairo, Illinois, named the area after the abundance of ferns and limestone bluffs. We were there too early to see any of the eponymous plants, but the park was still verdant. Moss clung to rocks and trees, mayapples covered the ground, and small, lavender flowers poked their petals through last fall's leaves.
We crossed a stream, skirted a turtle, and took the gently inclined hill to Hawk's Cave, one of the largest shelter bluffs in Illinois. As we ducked under the rock, avoiding a tiny stream of water that fell from above, we noticed rocks and trees carved with layer upon layer of hearts and couples' initials.
There were so many signs you'd think I might have a clue that something was about to happen, but nope.
We got back to the parking lot and stopped at the restrooms before getting some water for the next trail. As we walked to our car, the only one around except for a white panel van, we noticed a group of men. Jim was wearing an orange hat, but these men all wore orange hats. They also wore orange shirts emblazoned with IDOC INMATE - and one was carrying a trash bag.
"Hey Bob," we heard. "Do you remember where we hid the body?"
HA! Inmate humor.
The group and the officers with them took the trail we'd just completed, and we headed the opposite direction. The Big Rocky Hollow Trail was a flat, easy walk in the woods. We crossed a bridge and sat down on a bench, just enjoying the day and the view of the waterfall. There were others meandering by the pool at the base of the cliffs, and we could hear a man higher up calling to his son. After a few minutes the others left, the father and son were reunited, and it was just us. We got up and I started heading back towards the bridge. Jim asked, "don't you want to get closer to the falls?" We stepped over the rocks and gazed at the serene beauty that surrounded us. Little did I know that this entire time Jim had been scouting for the perfect spot.
He found it. He turned me so I would face him, took my hands, and asked.
"Will you marry me?"
"YES!" I didn't pause. I didn't think. It was reflex. It was the most certain word I'd ever spoken, until the next year when I said "I do." We hugged and laughed, delirious. I said "Did that just happen?" and he said "Yes!"
The walk back is a blur. I know we passed an older couple, and instead of the customary Hikers Hello, we grinned and shared "We just got engaged!"
I had thought on the walk to the waterfall that Ferne Clyffe was like a fairy land, with its tall straight trees and blanket of green. On the way back, I knew it was my fairytale.
There are other trails at Ferne Clyffe State Park, but in my heart there are two, and they're colored in hearts, waterfalls, a whole lot of green, and a little bit of orange.
Thanks for reading this excerpt from "Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1: Turkeys are Jerks and Other Observations from an American Road Trip." Want more? Visit twolanegems.com to learn about this epic journey, or get your copy now: